Joe Christensen covered Major League Baseball for 15 years, including three seasons at the Baltimore Sun and eight at the Star Tribune, before switching to the college football beat. He’s a Faribault, Minn., native who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1996. He covered Jim Wacker’s Gophers for the Minnesota Daily and also wrote about USC, UCLA and the Rose Bowl for the Riverside Press-Enterprise before getting this chance to cover football again.
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Philip Nelson impressed plenty of observers on Saturday. But maybe the most impressive thing about his day was how unimpressed he was.
Three touchdown passes? Ho hum. Zero interceptions? A blowout victory? Nelson seemed to be thinking more about what was for dinner.
"More than anything, I'm surprised he's like this all the time," said coach Jerry Kill, holding his hand level in front of him to demonstrate Nelson's steady demeanor. "At Wisconsin, when things didn't go right, (when he) threw two interceptions last week, he didn't come over and take his strap down. He stayed even keel."
It's a reflection of his background and his comfort level with the Gophers' offense, Kill said. "When I was 18 or 19, I probably wouldn't do that very well. He's mature," Kill said. "The high school he came from (Mankato West), the system they ran, I think it has a lot to do with it. I'm not going to tell you we take all the credit. He's been raised in a football family."
Nelson completed four passes of more than 30 yards in the first half alone, three of them for touchdowns and another that set up a score. It was a startling departure for Nelson, after a debut in which the Badgers' defense didn't give him many opportunities to throw deep.
The freshman quarterback's arm strength for a deep pass is "pretty darn good," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "I wish he had been able to cut a couple loose (at Wisconsin), but he did a good job of saying, 'I don't have it, so I don't want to push it.' As he gets more comfortable, we'll hit a couple."
That requires a defense that isn't keeping a safety deep at all times, a strategy that cedes some short passes but discourages big plays. That's what Wisconsin did, and Nelson recognized it. Purdue, however, gambled a little more, and Nelson pounced on his chances.
"Whatever the defense is giving us," Nelson said of his game plan. "Wisconsin wanted to eliminate deep plays. We tried taking a shot on a reverse-pass, but they played it well. So you have to chip your way down the field."
He didn't hold back nearly as much Saturday against Purdue. Nelson hit a wide-open Derrick Engel with a 34-yard pass for a touchdown on the Gophers' second possession, then looped a perfect spiral into MarQueis Gray's hands at the 4-yard line on the next possession, a 33-yard gain. The next drive moved 60 yards in 3 plays, including a 38-yard touchdown pass on the right sideline that Engel caught in stride.
And Nelson executed the longest pass play of the season on the next drive, hitting A.J. Barker on a bomb down the middle of the field, a play so open that Barker had to wait on the ball to arrive.
Limegrover said this week that he was impressed with Nelson's patience.
"Don't get greedy, don't try to do too much -- that's what gets young quarterbacks in trouble," the coach said. "We called a few deep balls, but he didn't have them, so he didn't cut loose. That shows a maturity from him. Sometimes, young guys go, 'I'll just try to let the receiver figure it out.' He doesn't."
Jerry Kill knows skepticism over his team and his coaching is rising, and a 25-point loss to Wisconsin didn't help. He just endured one of the most difficult weeks of his coaching career, one that began in the hospital and became consumed by a barrage of public criticism over future schedules.
But the Gophers' coach said he will spend this week keeping his players' spirits up, and rousing them not to give up on the season, because Minnesota's three-game losing streak doesn't reflect the progress he sees.
"There are some good things going on here," Kill said Sunday. "You've just got to really look hard at it right now."
Among them is the promise of his freshman quarterback, Philip Nelson, who handled everything the veteran Badgers threw at him defensively. There were mistakes, Kill said, but Nelson remained confident and poised throughout the game.
He'll start again Saturday against Purdue, and MarQueis Gray will line up at wide receiver. Gray can run straight ahead, Kill said, but his left legs remains to sore to stop and start quickly; his burst off the line of scrimmage is missing. The Gophers plan to utilize the senior at quarterback, but probably not for a few weeks, until he returns to complete health.
Health is a goal for the entire offense, actually. Kill said Isaac Fruechte and Devin Crawford-Tufts didn't play because both are recovering from concussions, and Fruechte caught the flu as well. Ed Olson was too injured to practice last week, and neither he nor his brother Tommy played in Madison. Zac Epping's hand is too sore to snap the ball, so he moved over to guard, and Zach Mottla, also recovering from an ankle injury, played through pain. And tailback Donnell Kirkwood missed a day of practice with an ankle injury, which helped limit him to just five carries.
They aren't completely healthy on defense, either. Safety Derrick Wells played with stitches in his knee, an injury that kept him out of practice, and he needed new stitches after the game. Tackle Cam Botticelli is playing with a sore elbow as well.
"I've taken some heat on the scheduling, but it's kind of the same thing -- we played four games, we're 4-0, and we're beat up going into the Big Ten," Kill said. "We're just a young group of guys."
This is the life of an offensive lineman: Tommy Olson injuries his ankle, and the Gophers need another left guard. Jon Christenson is the guy, even though he spends most of his time preparing to play center. But backup guard Joe Bjorklund is recovering from a concussion, and Christenson is next up.
And by all accounts, he does a creditable job in the new role. Even his teammates notice how well he's playing, especially considering he's just a 20-year-old redshirt freshman.
"It's not an easy job. My hat's off to him, because he's doing a good job at it," said Caleb Bak, who's started the past two games at right guard. "It's nice to see someone move in so quickly and do a good job."
Only problem: The one time that fans may have noticed Christenson was when his number was called by the referee. The Minnetonka native was flagged for a holding penalty at the worst possible time, just as quarterback Max Shortell was connecting with Devin Crawford-Tufts on a 34-yard touchdown pass.
The penalty was unacceptable, Bak said, but shouldn't obscure all the good work that Christenson did. And besides, holding penalties aren't the worst thing a lineman can do.
"Holding happens. It's a technique issue, something that can be fixed," Bak said. "We don't put as much stress on it as we do something like jumping offsides, because that's completely mental. We're really emphasizing avoiding those."
So in the film room on Sunday, Christenson heard about the hold, no doubt. But the real reprimands, he said, were saved for Zac Epping, Drew Goodger and K.J. Maye, who cost the Gophers five yards apiece.
False-start penalties "are definitely worse, because that's something that is very easily preventable," Bak said. "It's just about keeping a calm mind."
Hard to stay calm in those film sessions when you know what's coming, isn't it? "It depends on what you mean by punishment," Bak said. "You'll be getting a scolding, for sure."
Jerry Kill got an idea of MarQueis Gray's availability for next Saturday before yesterday's game even started.
"We walked out the tunnel together. I started jogging," the Gophers' coach said. "I'm 51, and he couldn't keep up with me."
That's an indication, the Gophers' coach said, of how sore the senior quarterback's left ankle and knee remain, a week after being injured against Western Michigan. And it makes his call for next Saturday's Big Ten opener at Iowa an easy one.
"I don't anticipate him playing next week. It would be a minor miracle if he was ready to play," Kill said. "I can't control the healing process, but right now, I'm not real optimistic (about) how quick that's going to come along."
That means a second start for Max Shortell, the sophomore quarterback who guided the 4-0 Gophers to a 17-10 victory over Syracuse in Minnesota's non-conference finale. Shortell passed for 231 yards with no interceptions against the Orange, and Kill said he was impressed with the sophomore's ability to read defenses and change plays at the line of scrimmage.
He'll begin preparations today for the 2-2 Hawkeyes, taking snaps with backup Philip Nelson. The Gophers have a bye week after their trip to Iowa, giving Gray an extra week to heal.
"I've seen things happen where guys bounce back pretty quick," Kill said, "but right now, we'll move along as we did the past week."
Kill also said:
-- He considered changing place-kickers after Jordan Wettstein missed two first-half field goals, but decided that the misfires weren't entirely Wettstein's fault. Rather than hurt his confidence, Kill chose to give Wettstein another chance, and the senior nailed a 43-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.
-- Left guard Tommy Olson suffered a sprained ankle, and receiver Marcus Jones developed a hip pointer during Saturday's game, but neither injury is believed to be particularly serious. Jones even returned to action after being examined by the team's athletic trainers.
-- Linebacker Lamonte Edwards, who suffered a concussion a week ago, didn't pass the trainers' baseline concussion test Saturday, and was held out of the game.
-- Wide receiver Andre McDonald had to avoid contact as a result of tests conducted while he was briefly hospitalized last week, but Kill sounded optimistic that the freshman would be cleared to resume practicing within a day or two.
-- Saturday's atmosphere in the stadium was the best he's experienced at Minnesota. "If you didn't have fun last night," he said, "you must not like fun."
Which is more difficult to comprehend, Gophers fans, the fact that your football team is undefeated heading into Big Ten play, or the fact that they've done it with defense?
After feasting on overmatched schools from lower levels for three weeks, the Gophers faced an opponent with BCS conference credentials. "Their skill people were as good as we've seen all year," Kill said. And how did that matchup come out?
Minnesota is 4-0 after shutting down a Syracuse offense that was scoring almost 40 points a game. The pressure up front was evident all night -- for each of the Gophers' three sacks, there were probably two more near-misses -- and the Orange's star receiver, Marcus Sales, wasn't even a factor until the game's final drive.
In fact, take away that 83-yard drive when Minnesota already led by 14 points, a march that the Gophers also managed to slow down so it took almost five minutes off the clock, and Syracuse had 267 yards of offense. Not bad for a defense that ranked 10th in the Big Ten last year and allowed an average of more than 400 yards per game. This year? No opponent has reached 400 yards yet.
"We focus on stopping the run, and as soon as we stop the run, we know we can make a team one-dimensional," said defensive end Michael Amaefula. "Once you make them one-dimensional, we'll go get them on the pass rush."
Good plan. Until the Orange's final drive, senior quarterback Ryan Nassib was only 14-for-24 for 147 yards through the air. He was 7-for-7 on the final drive against a tired (and wary of the big play) Gopher defense, true enough. But the Gophers had established the tone for the night long before that.
On the first play from scrimmage, matter of fact, when safety Cedric Thompson intercepted Nassib's pass.
There are plenty of things for the Gophers to clean up. Jordan Wettstein missed a pair of makable field goals, one of them from just 26 yards, though he recovered by hitting a 43-yarder that all but put the game away in the fourth quarter. They had too many penalties, too, committing eight for 63 yards, and surrendered a couple of sacks.
But none of that matters like the final score. And for the fourth straight week, the score wiped away any and every mistake.
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